Isotope analyses of merovingian and viking age human remains

Katy Meyers Emery

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Vikings TV Show poster, via IMDB

Vikings are a hot topic right now. While I would hope this would be due to their interesting maritime culture,fascinating burial practices or an increased understanding in the important role that women played to the society, its probably more related to the TV Show ‘Vikings’ on the History channel. I’ll admit that I watched the first season and, unlike many history shows, I didn’t spend too much time yelling at the TV about the historical inaccuracies. In many ways, I’m glad that shows like this exist because they renew interest in the past and clearly demonstrate the importance of archaeology- if recent archaeological work hadn’t revealed the important role of women, I’m sure the show wouldn’t have placed such an emphasis on strong females. But what do we know about this group before they began their raiding into England, before they were the ‘Vikings’?

A new study by Naumann, Price and Richards (2014) looks at the changes in social structures and diet during the transition from the Merovingian (6th to 9th c. CE) to Vikings era (9th to 11th c. CE) in Northern Europe. At the beginning of the 6th century, the Scandinavians were experiencing a recession- climate change caused decreased agriculture, hunting and gathering, there were few settlements, and burials show that there was little differentiation of wealth and status due to an overall poverty. However, by the late 8th century, there are marked increases in production, agriculture, large organized settlements, and richly furnished burials. The settlements and burials of the 9th century have obvious differences in wealth- with some burials having large caches of grave goods and well-built large houses, and others with no grave goods and simple house structures. The rise of this upper class and increased surplus allowed these groups more freedom to explore and conquer.

Naumann, Price and Richards (2014) investigate differences in diet in order to learn more about how society changed and what kind of change occurred from the 6th to 11th centuries. Their sample consists of 33 individuals from the Merovingian (6th to 9th c. CE) to Vikings era (9th to 11th c. CE). The skeletal material came from a variety of graves with differences in grave goods, as well as a range of age and sex, in order to get a good sample of the Merovingian and Viking populations. In order to determine dietary practices, samples of bone and teeth were taken from each individual to perform stable isotope analysis of carbon and nitrogen ratios (strontium ratios had been previously determined in an earlier study). Samples were also taken from animal bones as reference to learn about migration.

The results of the analysis revealed that overall there was high diversity in dietary patterns despite all individuals being buried along the Norwegian coast. In general, there was increased use and consumption of marine resources during the Viking age, as well as increased variation within the population in this period pointing to differential access to these resources. During the Merovingian era, individuals were using a wide variety of resources. Given the recession, they would have been forced to use a diversity of resources since they couldn’t rely on agricultural foodstuffs and animal husbandry. Further, in the Merovingian era, there is low variation between individuals, suggesting they were eating a similar mixed diet.

In sum, during the Merovingian era there was low variation between individuals and a mixed diet, whereas in the Viking age there was higher variation between individuals and increased marine resources in the diet. This points to a broader change between the periods from a mixed agricultural and hunting approach in a fairly equal society, to a more marine focused approach and increased differences between social classes. The increased use of the ocean as a resource is likely connected to the broader use of water for travel and transport that the Vikings are famous for. Further, analysis of the strontium ratios in these individuals shows that in general people were more mobile during the Viking era, corresponding with the rise of marine exploitation.

Naumann E, Price TD, & Richards MP (2014). Changes in dietary practices and social organization during the pivotal late iron age period in Norway (AD 550-1030): Isotope analyses of merovingian and viking age human remains. American journal of physical anthropology, 155 (3), 322-31 PMID: 24898189